Mia Wasikowska is shimmeringly brilliant in Guillermo Del Toro's swirling gothic romance

Is it just me, or is there a double entendre half-buried in the title of Guillermo del Toro’s new film? Once you’ve seen the thing, it’s hard not to read it as a cheek-reddening, thigh-trembling euphemism, not least because the film seems to be perpetually teetering on the brink of breathless climax.

Del Toro’s ninth feature is a swooning, swirling Victorian romance spattered with the bright blood of classic Hammer horror: in short, think Du Maurier, but gorier. The setting is the late 19th century, and the star is Mia Wasikowska, who plays Edith Cushing, an aspiring writer and the daughter of a newly wealthy New York industrialist. Her debut novel is dismissed by publishers as a ghost story – though she prefers to describe it, in a phrase that equally applies to Crimson Peak itself, as “a story with ghosts in it”. 

Edith’s surname is presumably a nod to the great Hammer actor Peter Cushing, who did more than his own fair share of creeping down corridors – and this, it turns out, is the life for which she’s destined. 

Enter Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a dashing baronet who struts into her father’s office one morning like a kind of Byronic stork. Thomas has come from England to seek funding for a new steam-powered digging machine of his own invention. But Edith’s father (Jim Beaver) flatly turns him down: as a self-made model of true American grit, he’s unimpressed by Thomas’s fancy title and ingratiating airs. Edith, on the other hand, is smitten, and as the pair dance a candlelit waltz at a local society function, gorgeously bathed in golden, Barry Lyndon-esque light, the couple’s future feels twinklingly bright.

Sure enough, Edith is soon sailing to England as Thomas’s wife, to live in the Sharpe ancestral pile on the snow-blown Cumbrian moors. This is Allerdale Hall, and it comes with its own built-in Miss Havisham/Mrs Danvers: Thomas’s brooding elder sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). 

Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain in Guillermo Del Toro's 'Crimson Peak' Credit: Universal Pictures/Kerry Hayes

The house is built on top of, and also slowly sinking into, the Sharpe family clay mine, and when Edith treads on the hallway floorboards, red sludge squishes up through the cracks – a voluptuously horrible image. Meanwhile, dead leaves perpetually twirl down from a yawning hole in the roof.

Allerdale is a triumph of set design, and instantly takes its place among the great screen haunted houses. Manderley, from Hitchcock’s Rebecca, is an obvious influence – every room is so brocaded with fabrics and trinkets that at times it’s hard to know where the furniture ends and the costumes begin.

Mia Wasikowska arrives at Allerdale Hall, the setting for 'Crimson Peak' Credit: Universal Pictures

But it’s also constructed on the same Freudian lines as the Bates Motel in Psycho, as a kind of bricks-and-mortar manifestation of its owners’ crumbling psyches. On the ground floor, some semblance of normality abides, but upstairs, in the dank attic nursery, Lucille plays the building's icy super-ego, while the secrets stashed in the slimy cellar are its vile and spluttering id.

It’s as if the building itself were repressing memories, which take the form of the ghosts that stalk Edith when she finds herself on her own – more often, it should be said, than a newlywed might expect. Most of Crimson Peak is taken up with Edith’s attempts to unlock the house’s mystery: familiar ground for Wasikowska, who did much the same thing, superbly, in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre. With its computer-generated ghouls, this is a much less subtle business, but Wasikowska is more than a match for it, and the actress has never before looked quite so shimmeringly starlike.

Mia Wasikowska, the heroine of Guillermo Del Toro's 'Crimson Peak' Credit: Universal Pictures

The spirits themselves are beautifully designed, if a little too obviously digital (the ectoplasmic vapour that curls from their skin is as distracting as it is pretty). But for the most part, the film remembers that fear springs from simple, tactile things, like the unexpectedly nimble movement of a ghost’s fingers, or a doorknob clawed by unseen hands.

The last time Del Toro plunged this deep into melancholia, the result was his 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth – and Crimson Peak feels like a move back towards first principles, and away from the friendly neon blare of the Hellboy films and Pacific Rim (whose beefy star, Charlie Hunnam, provides some much-needed warmth in a supporting role as an amateur sleuth).

Its sombre sincerity and hypnotic, treasure-box beauty make Crimson Peak feel like a film out of time – but Del Toro, his cast and his crew carry it off without a single postmodern prod or smirk. The film wears its heart on its sleeve, along with its soul and most of its intestines.